Pope Francis’s Eco-Encyclical Shows How Catholicism Is Neither Right Nor Left

I’m glad that Pope Francis has written an encyclical (Laudato Si) on the importance for humans to care for the environment.

Because, quite simply, God created the natural world and has commanded us to be good stewards of it. That is neither left nor right. It is simply Catholic.

A Thought-Drowning Furor

Unfortunately, a furor has already grown over the very fact that Pope Francis has written the encyclical, before the ink has even dried on it.

Two persons yelling out to each other
Constructive dialogue goes out the window

How we should care for the environment is a deeply politically polarized issue. As such, people get up in arms the instant that anything related to it is mentioned: pollution, emissions, global warming, climate change, climate disruption, and so on.

So it is unsurprising that his encyclical was being lambasted before anyone had even read it. Like many other contentious topics in our society today, the furor drowns out actual thought and respectful dialogue.

The Wisdom of Pope Francis

Pope Francis introduces his encyclical’s theme: care for the environment and responsible development, especially to help the poor:

Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.

He decries pollution and other well-known problems, but also jumps quickly to affirming man-made global warming:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.

Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.

I’ll say more on global warming shortly, but regardless of whether it is occurring and caused by humans, the latter statement Pope Francis makes, that we should change our consumerist, throwaway lifestyles, is accurate and urgent.

Pope Francis goes on to write about the importance of water, both its purity, wise use, and access for all people. Then he talks about biodiversity and extinction–all important topics when discussing ecology.

He then expands his focus to include social inequalities and injustices found in inner cities and in the concentration of resources among the wealthy at the exclusion–both physically and socially–of the poor.

I was pleased to see that the Pope discusses how many people push for contraception and lowering the birth-rate as the solution to our problems:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”.

Obviously for us as Catholics this is problematic in the extreme and cannot be condoned.

In the next section, Pope Francis turns to the theological basis for ecology: the Bible, sacred Tradition, and in particular the words of Jesus. He presents solid Catholic social teaching on the fact that humanity is a communion where the fruits of the earth are for the benefit of everyone.

What I Wished Pope Francis Had Excluded

Global warming and climate change.

Pope Francis wrote about anthropogenic (man-made) climate change, going with the popular consensus that it is a fact.

Firstly, these statements are in the area of science and so are not to be considered dogmas of the the Faith. Pope Francis is going with the popular opinion on these matters to get into the more important aspects of the Church’s teachings on caring for the environment.

I wish that Pope Francis had not included statements about global warming or climate change, because 1) they are not scientifically proven, 2) they are not concerning faith and morals, and 3) they are used by secular ideologues to promote anti-human agendas.

her1Quite frankly, it confuses the faithful when contested scientific opinions are intermixed with the presentation of Church doctrines. Which statements are binding upon Catholics? Which are not?

He could have included everything else he wrote about, without opining on climate change, because whether anthropogenic climate change is happening or not, the bottom line for Catholics is still the same: care for people and the environment in prudent and wise ways.

He could have omitted those opinions, left the controversy to the scientists and public at large, and instead put the spotlight on some examples of ways humans are harming the environment that neither the Left nor the Right pay attention to. Then he could have discussed the innovative ways that people–including Catholics–are solving these problems to improve the environment.

Which brings us to…

What I Wished Pope Francis Had Included

I wished that Pope Francis had delved into actual solutions to the problems facing our world and how we treat it.

He does write in a general way on ecosystems, which comes close to what I was hoping for:

We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities.

The milk stanchion with Miss Cordelia Jane in it
The milk stanchion with Miss Cordelia Jane in it

But I would love to have seen him include detailed paragraphs on permaculture in small-scale farming, for instance, and on decrying the evils of conventional agriculture.

In my book Farm Flop, I describe one of the glaring problems that we saw out in the country, problems that no one talks about:

Neighbors drenched their fields with Grazon, a broad-leaf herbicide that people use on their pasture when they want a pure grass stand. The positive side of it is that it kills off weeds like Silverleaf Nightshade, Pig weed, Dove weed, and Purple Thistle. The bad side is that it kills every other non-grass plant as well, even good ones.

And the scientists at Texas A&M had discovered that Grazon remained the soil for months and months. Even if the grass was cut for hay and baled, the Grazon was still in it—we learned this lesson when we used some Grazon-laden hay as sheet mulch in one garden bed, and all the plants died. It could even pass through the manure of animals intact.

Here in central Texas, rural land should be a healthy mixture of trees, bushes, and grasses, but over the past two hundred years the trees were mostly cut down to make room for tractors to easily go up and down fields, cutting hay or planting and harvesting crops. Ironically, it meant that out in the country we had less birds and squirrels and trees than we did living in the suburbs of Austin!

This line from Pope Benedict, quoted by Pope Francis, is prescient:

“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.

Friends of ours in Kansas told us how the wheat farmers there, after cutting the wheat in summer, left the fields bare, without any cover crop, and the hot sun baked the ground, increasing the ambient temperature by over ten degrees after the wheat harvest was taken.

Conventional Agriculture’s Ills

But even these bad practices pale in comparison to how conventional farming is done today.

gm1Farms have centralized in the past fifty years to where relatively few owners own huge tracts of acreage. They buy GMO seeds from the big chemical companies (Monsanto, Dow, etc.) and then douse the plants with herbicide to kill the weeds.

Cows are raised in pasture for the first part of their life but then sent to the feedlot to fatten them up quickly for the sale barn. This makes their manure, which should be an asset, into a pollution and transportation problem, because it is so highly concentrated in one location (the feedlot).

Similar problems exist with CAFO chicken operations and pig lagoons. My family in the Panhandle of Texas fought for years (unsuccessfully) to prevent a big pig corporation from moving in upwind from them. They failed, and the pig lagoons were created, smelling terribly and using up vast amounts of water in an already fast-depleting aquifer.

We Need Another Encyclical

When we are doing such obviously awful things to the environment, an eco-encyclical is a no-brainer. But what Pope Francis cannot do is write the follow-up encyclical that describes in detail how to solve these problems.

matild1We need an encyclical on pastured beef and poultry, one permaculture and guilds, on water systems and keylining and contour farming.

Since he can’t write it, we as the laity need to do so. We need to write books and establish sustainable farms and rebuild agrarian Catholic community like the original Catholic Land Movement attempted to do.

Katie and I tried to play our part in this, but ultimately for various reasons we had to give up on the farming dream. That said, you can take us out of the farm but not the farm out of us. We have created a garden in our suburban lot that is already producing vegetables and fruit, plus making habitat for butterflies, snakes, bees, spiders, and soil life.

Why Isn’t Pope Francis Focusing On Real Threats?

Some friends of mine expressed their concern and frustration that Pope Francis spent so much time on an eco-encyclical, instead of raising awareness and an outcry on weightier matters like abortion, the widespread loss of faith in the world, the plummeting birth rates in the West (including in Europe and in Italy), the horrific rise of radical Islam, and so on.

I can sympathize to a degree with this desire. While the environment is important, 1) writing an eco-encyclical and mentioning anything about man-made climate change plays into the hands of the political Left, whose policies are contrary to the Catholic Church’s is almost every way, and 2) the health of the natural world at this moment is not the gravest threat to people and to the truth of God.

Jesus please rescue her
Jesus please rescue her

When women and girls are being sold as sex slaves by ISIS, is raising the flag about caring for nature the most pressing issue?

No. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t decry both wrongs. It doesn’t mean he can’t or shouldn’t write about the Catholic teachings on people and the environment.

His eco-encyclical is in fact needed, as I have supported with examples in this post. But in our age of sound bites and co-opting of messages, such a work is too easily spun, subverted, and prooftexted for out-of-context passages to seek to line up Pope Francis and the Catholic Church on a particular side, and the side that can do that most readily is the Left, a deadly enemy and persecutor of the Church and her people.

But the bottom line is that Pope Francis is the bishop of Rome, and I am not. I am a Catholic and therefore faithful to him and the Church. He has a greater understanding than I do of the needs of Catholics around the world.

What the Left And Right Should Do

I am glad that Pope Francis wrote this encyclical. I find it helpful and can read it within the rich Catholic tradition from which it springs.

The political Left should read it carefully and seek to understand the healthy and deep perspective from which it comes. They should avoid taking quotes out of context to try to proof-text their own opinions on climate change and what should be done about it.

left-right-politicsThe political Right should, first of all, actually read the encyclical and resist the urge to have a knee-jerk anti-ecology reaction to it. Pope Francis is not a Leftist tree-hugger who prioritizes bald eagle eggs over unborn human babies. Rather, he is a deep thinker and Gospel-believer who infuses environmental concerns with the true understanding of God and the human person, and how we are made to live in this world.

The Right should consider the wisdom given and the extensive Catholic thought on this subject. They should consult their faithful Catholic friends who have given much thought to these areas, especially those who follow the Catholic Land Movement and its principles.

Amid the noise and clamor of the talking heads about Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical, my hope is that some sane voices will rise and be noticed who can speak intelligently and wisely about what he wrote and how we can make practical application of the ideas he shared.

Too much to hope for? Perhaps, but I’m Catholic, so I am always confidently hope-ful!

We can and must care for our world. We have developed sound ways of doing so, that balance economic and technological growth with prudent care of ecosystems. Let’s hope that we can take a big step forward in doing so, beginning one family and community at a time.

Leaving the Farm

playingWe have sold our farm and are moving back into the city.

It’s the end of a dream that Katie and I had had since the beginning of our marriage. We wanted to have land, grow food, raise animals, and hopefully build a Catholic community in an agrarian setting.

Why Leave?

A few months ago I told Katie: “I can do two out of three things well:

1. Provide for my family well
2. Be a good husband and father
3. Be a good farmer

But I can’t do all three well, so which two do we choose?”

The farm requires constant work. I still have eight big oak trees we had to fell last summer that need bucking with the chainsaw, hauling, then splitting. I never got to it. We had nine cows by the end of our time, which require more grass than our land produces, so I needed to buy and get hay to feed them. Also every other day I would move them to a new paddock of grass…thirty minutes to do that right there.

Berms need building, plants need watering, trees need bucking, barn needs fixing, cow needs milking, weeds need shredding, the list goes on forever. But with a full-time job as a software developer, I did not have time to get to everything. Along the way, I injured my lower back, and then re-injured it two months ago. That put into sharp focus whether the farm, which produced very little for us, should be jeopardizing my ability to provide for my family in my regular job.

Providence

God made things easy: after fourteen years He made it clear I needed to leave my current company and find a new job. That was an unexpected change in direction. My old job had allowed me to work from home three days per week, enabling us to live far out in the country. My new job was flexible but not that flexible. So suddenly I was faced with a daily commute of an hour each way, decreasing the time I could spend with my children. Unacceptable.

This is usually the way God works in my life: He guides events to where the next step is clear, even if it was completely unexpected just a few days ago. When I got the offer from my new company, Katie and I discussed what we should do for just one day before deciding we would sell our farm immediately and move into town.

Sadness?

I am not sad at all about this, because I believe we are following our Lord’s direction. Sure, we thought we were being called to be new agrarians and build a rural Catholic community. And maybe we will be one day. But that day is not today. We will go back to being suburban middle-class people again. Not so bad.

The truth is that the culture of rural areas has been gutted. Read some of Wendell Berry’s fiction and non-fiction books and you’ll understand how it happened. We drive by all the fields on the way into town: GMO corn, sprayed with herbicides, fields of pure grass stands attained through constant application of Grazon (broad leaf herbicide), no rotational grazing of cows at all, slow desertification happening before our eyes. I don’t say global warming is happening; I say global desertification is happening, and deserts are hotter in the summer/daytime and colder at night and in the winter. Less vegetation and cover are there to stabilize the weather from extremes.

The rural culture is in shambles, because its root is agri-culture, and as I just described agriculture is in a sad place. We met some good friends out in the country, friends we plan to keep in touch with, but nothing near enough to begin to build a Catholic community. Our efforts to invite traditional Catholic religious orders to the diocese all came to naught as well.

Writing

I didn’t have time to write the past year and a half, out on the farm. My book came out, but that was because my editor and I had already finished it over the previous year. Blog posts have been scarce, not because I don’t have anything to write, but because I have had higher priorities to take care of. I thought those would settle down at some point, but I realized that out on the farm they would never settle down. It would be one thing if I could have earned a living from the farm, but that is hard to do and was never one of my goals in any case.

I look forward to being back in town, going to the coffee shop an evening each week and writing. I signed another book contract with Catholic Answers; the first draft of the manuscript I wrote three years ago, but life has been so full that I have only now had time to talk with Catholic Answers and agree on doing the book together.

It has been nice, though, not having time to write. I’ve watched with interest and concern as the blogosphere and social media worlds have changed over the past year or two. I see less of a need for my voice to chime in on most issues–others are handling it fine, or the din is so loud no one is listening anyway. Best to focus on the few things that I can offer real insight into and write about those things.

The Family

We had ten-plus acres of land out here, but our children are small and can’t just wander about on their own (we have rattlesnakes and copperheads in the area). So ironically the only thing our children will miss in the big pile of dirt we had by the pond after our friend cleaned it up. They just loved to climb on it and run down it and throw dirt clods off it, simple stuff. In our new place we are going to have several cubic yards of dirt delivered and dumped in the back yard just to simulate the farm dirt mound.

So our children won’t miss it too much. Edmund has grown in his knowledge of nature and critters and will continue in that. I’ll take him hunting and camping and things like that. He already knows more than most grown-ups and can name trees or plants on sight. No lie, ask his God-father who took him on a train ride and said he named everything they passed, flora and fauna.

Katie, for her part, is especially ready to move back into town. We are moving into the same neighborhood as our parish, St. William’s, which is one of the best ones in the entire Austin diocese. Friends live nearby; we can go to adoration and daily Mass easily; my commute will be cut in half.

I hope to get involved in the parish and teach classes, give talks, etc. I also hope to give talks at local parishes, and to do so for free. Our Lord has provided for us generously through my regular work so I am able to do this.

The next chapter is opening up! We don’t know where it will lead, but we grateful to Christ and hopeful for the future.